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Friday, April 29, 2011

Quake memorials can be more than names in marble

Kobe lights the way

Quake memorials can be more than names in marble

Last updated 15:15 29/04/2011

Earthquake memorials can be more than names carved in marble. CHARLIE GATES learns how memorial art can lift spirits, raise money and attract people back to a shattered city.

Twinkling palaces of light and millions of people fill the streets of Kobe in Japan every year.

It looks more like a celebration than a requiem. But the dazzling displays of light are both.

Kobe was struck by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake on January 17, 1995. It was one of the most damaging earthquakes to strike Japan in the 20th century, killing more than 6000 people and causing US$100 billion of damage.

Within a year the Kobe Luminarie was born. An annual festival of lights that brings as many as four million people to Kobe, attracts $1.3 million in donations and raises $6.1m in sponsorship and merchandise sales.

The event has been held every year in December since 1995.

It was originally proposed as a "symbol of hope", said a spokesperson for the event.

"We first started the Kobe Luminarie as a requiem for the victims of the earthquake and as a symbol of hope and a dream of recovery and renovation for our city. Also, by holding this event, we could attract more tourists to Kobe since less people visited the city after the earthquake," they said.

"Also, we can tell the story of the earthquake to the next generation and symbolise the hope of the city and its citizens."

A festival of lights was chosen as a symbol of recovery.

"After the earthquake, many Kobe citizens had to live and survive in darkness for some days as the lifeline of electricity, gas and water supply was cut off. However, once that lifeline was recovered, stricken victims were deeply moved and given courage and hope by the lights. So, to light up the city with a festival of the lights was considered the best way to symbolise the hope and dream of recovery and renovation."

The festival has become a wildly successful memorial for the devastating 1995 quake and attracts tourists from all over the world.

It could also provide a creative example for Christchurch when it turns to a memorial for the February quake.

The Kobe experience proves that an earthquake memorial can be so much more than "putting out a piece of marble", it can be a living memorial that raises money, revitalises a city and brings life back to the streets.

Christchurch Public Art Advisory Group chairman Anthony Wright said art could play a leading role in the rebuild of the city.

"There is room for a range of memorials, it doesn't have to be confined to a particular form. It needs to go out to creative minds. Artists are a fantastic source of ideas for how we might memorialise the quake, he said.

"It is my view that art, heritage and culture are intrinsically bound up with the rebuild of the city. Art is a really important part of the fabric of our society. It has to be factored in.

"It is too early to be forming any ideas, given there is so much recovery work to do in the city centre, but the involvement of art and artists will be important."

Christchurch Arts Festival director Philip Tremewan agreed that memorials could be more than "putting out a piece of marble".

"Memorials can take many different forms and don't just have to be a lump of concrete. Kobe is a great example of a creative response," he said.

Creative New Zealand chief executive Stephen Wainwright said he was sure Christchurch's artistic community would come up with innovative ideas.

"That is the great thing about the creative sector, people are never short of really interesting and compelling ideas. If the idea of a memorial gets out to the community I would anticipate that there would be original and exciting things that come forward."

But the creative response in Kobe emerged in tandem with a more traditional memorial. A silent prayer is offered to the victims of the quake at the opening ceremony of the Kobe Luminarie and the official memorial monument is open late at night during the event.

A traditional memorial marking what happened to Christchurch in February and the names of those who died is an essential civic element of any artistic response to the quake.

"There will be a prominent marker of some art saying this is what happened and this is who died," said Tremewan.

The form of that official memorial is being discussed by central government, Christchurch City Council, police, the coroner's office and the families of the dead "to determine an appropriate memorial site for all victims of the earthquake, as well as any burial sites which may be required", a council spokeswoman said.

Memorial options will be debated by Christchurch city councillors in a workshop next month.

"The details of the proposal are yet to be confirmed and a range of options will be discussed first with families" the spokeswoman said.

"The wishes of family members, both from New Zealand and overseas, are of the utmost importance in the memorial and burial planning processes. This is something that the mayor thinks is important for the city, but there are still a number of details that need to be worked through to ensure whatever is decided upon would be appropriate."

Mayor Bob Parker said families of the dead will need to guide the process, but recovery was still the main priority for the city.

"It is just too soon to be into speculation about where we might do it. Let's get a little bit of water under the bridge first.

"It is clear that some kind of memorial will be appropriate, but where it is and how it should be is something that needs to be discussed with families a year out from this event," he said.

"It is something we must do, but something that needs to wait for a while. Let's get the water back and the wastewater back first. I haven't turned my mind to this as there are many other priorities at this time."

But Kobe has proved that a swift artistic response to an earthquake can be an incredibly positive influence on a quake-ravaged city. The first Luminarie was held just 11 months after the 1995 earthquake.

Clearly, the idea of a festival of lights has already been taken, but it could act as a challenge to the Christchurch arts community to come up with a unique, Kiwi response to our disaster. Something creative and positive in the face of so much destruction.

The Luminarie could light the way for all quake-hit cities and show how Christchurch can sparkle once again.

- The Press

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